Elation turns to despair in the north west

North west Queensland flood 100 days on

AWASH: North west Queensland became an inland sea in February. Photo: Dan Gresham, Cloncurry Mustering Company.

AWASH: North west Queensland became an inland sea in February. Photo: Dan Gresham, Cloncurry Mustering Company.


Hope turned to despair as the north west went from drought stricken to completely awash within just days. Residents reflect on the life-alerting event 100 days on.


AT first there was elation.

As dark clouds formed on the horizon and rolled over the dry open plains in north-west Queensland, hope was restored to producers who had endured seven long years of drought.

It was the first week of February, and the wet season had finally arrived. It seemed prayers had finally been answered.

As the monsoon trough settled over the towns of Hughenden, Richmond, Julia Creek and Cloncurry, graziers were eagerly checking their rain gauges and recording the results.

Creeks were finally flowing and dams filling up. Neighbours compared notes as they recorded 100mm here, or 200mm there.

But after three days of relentless rain, it became clear the monsoon had well and truly set in.

Producers did something that only a week back they would never have imagined - they willed the rain to stop.

A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions was unfolding.

Towns had received more than their annual rainfall in just days and the parched land was not equipped to cope.

In the Gulf Country and north west Queensland, record-breaking rainfall was occurring. Several towns had seven-day rainfall accumulations of more than 600 mm, and large areas received more than four times their February average rainfall.

The Flinders and Leichhardt Rivers and their tributaries swelled to create a vast inland sea, sweeping away livestock, infrastructure and livelihoods.

In the Gulf Country, floodwaters covering an estimated 15,000 sq km or more in the Flinders and Norman River basins north of Mount Isa drained into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Ultimately, an area larger than the entire state of Victoria was to be inundated.

Graziers tried to move their cattle to higher ground, but for many, the task proved impossible. They were cut off, without feed, and saving stranded livestock became an immediate priority.

Camille and Marty Rogers, Carnwath Station, 100km south west of Richmond, moving their cattle to higher ground in February. Picture: Marty Rogers

Camille and Marty Rogers, Carnwath Station, 100km south west of Richmond, moving their cattle to higher ground in February. Picture: Marty Rogers

The response was swift. Mayors in affected shires were quick to spread the word. There was a dire need for assistance. Farming advocacy group AgForce and the Cattle Council of Australia were on the front foot, making sure the nation's eyes were on the unfolding disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of cattle were stranded in floodwaters, without access to feed.

The Australian Defence Force was called in to assist with emergency fodder drops and to supply aviation fuel to the region.

A forward operating base was established in Cloncurry and by February 8, crews were conducting initial aerial reconnaissance to assist local farmers and contractors.

Commander JTF 646 Brigadier Stephen Jobson led a team of about 150 ADF personnel, who ultimately delivered 43 tonnes of livestock feed and 42,000 litres of aviation fuel during the height of the disaster.

AgForce Queensland president Georgie Somerset described the difficulty of watching the event unfold from afar.

"As we watched the rain falling we could see the elation, but we very quickly could see the elation turning to deep concern," Ms Somerset said.

"By Monday afternoon we knew we had a disaster on our hands."

Ms Somerset said AgForce turned to gathering data from those on the ground to be able to articulate the magnitude of the disaster on a broader scale.

"We were fielding phone calls around it, with requests for fodder, and really that first week was quite a challenge but there were a range of processes to put in place and we had to step up."

Ms Somerset said it was not the usual role of agricultural organisations to get involved with natural disaster management, but they were a voice for their members and they helped to deliver data and the need for assistance to the highest office.

"The disaster groups locally stepped up under enormous pressure and by Friday morning the Prime Minister was fully aware, very early in the whole process, which was critical to the response we had."

Cattle Council of Australia, AgForce cattle board vice president and grazier Lloyd Hick recalled how he kept track as the situation rapidly escalated from his property Thorntonia, at Camooweal.

His other property Cassilis, 70km south of Richmond, was copping a hiding.

"It certainly changed in a very short period of time," Mr Hick said.

"I had a manager on my block at Richmond and we were getting daily reports of the rain, I think my answer after about day three was keep it coming, we can't have too much of a good thing.

"By day five I released we had a problem on our hands that we just couldn't control. It was an act of nature that went a little bit wrong."

Mr Hick said he ended up losing 2000 steers, not from drowning but from hypothermia.

"It was purely the cold and all of our losses were very young cattle, the older cattle that were stronger and in better condition and had more fat seemed to handle it better.

"It was just a combination of wet, cold and windy, it was those three things and they were hungry, once the grass was wet there was nothing to eat for a while."

Traeger MP Robbie Katter said he recalled one friend calling him from a station as the disaster unfolded with a calm, yet concerning prediction: "you better be prepared here because I think you are going to be counting the losses in the hundreds of thousands. Those big company places are going to be wiped out completely then the Gulf so you will probably be looking at over four hundred thousand."

It was then Mr Katter realised the enormity of what the region was facing, and it was only the beginning.

"I was still thinking that there is no guarantee that this rain is going to go away anytime soon.

"Two things had become apparent by this stage. Firstly; it wasn't just the water that was rolling the cattle it was the strong winds causing hypothermia doing arguably more damage. Secondly; it wasn't just the cattle dying, it was basically everything but the fish. Native birds and all the kangaroos were being found dead everywhere."

As the floodwater subsided, communities began taking stock of their losses as the nation rallied around them.

It is estimated that livestock losses will reach about 625,000 cattle and 48,000 sheep. Producers lost 10,000 km of fencing, 16,000 km of farm roads, 1000 km of water pipe and nearly 800 dams and watering points.

The total cost of dead livestock and damage to farm infrastructure will top $1 billion.

  • Queensland Country Life has documented this story and plenty of others in our souvenir edition available on Thursday, May 30. Be sure to pick up your copy to commemorate this monumental event in our state's history.

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